‘You Don’t Kill a Story by Killing a Journalist’
Three years ago today, Corinne Vella received a call that would forever change her family, her life, and even her homeland, the small Mediterranean island of Malta.
Ali Nagiyev, 59, is a busy man. His job is to fight corruption in Azerbaijan, one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
As a deputy chief of the Anti-Corruption General Directorate with the Prosecutor General, Nagiyev is supposed to investigate state officials for conflicts of interest, nepotism, and other abuses.
As such, he is one of the key law enforcement figures who would be responsible for investigating the Azerbaijani Laundromat, a multipurpose money laundering platform and slush fund used by the country’s ruling elite for a long list of probable financial crimes.
But there’s one problem. Ali Nagiyev, his sons, and his nephew Naghi all appear to be users of the financial fraud vehicle themselves.
The Nagiyev family are wealthy international players whose business interests stretch from Baku to the British Virgin Islands (BVI), with multi-million-dollar assets in the Czech Republic and Turkey. The source of this money is not immediately clear, as the family members worked for the state before becoming real estate barons.
Ali’s sons Ilgar, 28, and Ilham, 29, used to own a Prague-based company called AME Holding that has made large real estate investments in the Czech Republic, a popular destination for the Azerbaijani ruling elite. Today, the company is owned by Nettle Stone Investments Ltd, a BVI-registered company of which Ilham is the sole shareholder.
A company with the name AME Holding appears in the Azerbaijani Laundromat. According to the leaked banking records, it received US$ 1.25 million from Metastar Invest LLP, one of the scheme’s known core companies, to its Czech bank account in July and August of 2013. The purpose of the transactions is listed as “construction equipment,” though it is not clear why a Czech real estate holding company would be selling construction equipment to a British firm.
Furthermore, people with the same name as Ali, his two sons, and his brother Vali’s son Naghi also got money from the Laundromat personally, also in Czech bank accounts, totalling over $350,000. Most of these transactions do not list a reason, though two of them say they were for “computers.”
Neither Ali Nagiyev nor his brother Vali would comment for this article. A spokesperson for the Prosecutor General said that Ali Nagiyev is an effective fighter against corruption and dismissed any claims to the contrary as “allegations from envious people.”
After reporters for OCCRP sought comment from the Nagiyevs, they were contacted by another Azerbaijani journalist who asked for a meeting “to discuss how to stop the article.” He said he was acting at the Nagiyevs’ request.
While Ali Nagiyev has gained a high media profile due to his important government positions, less is known about his family. That could be because Nagiyev previously served as deputy minister of national security, an area of government typically shrouded in secrecy.
Ali Nagiyev was dismissed from that security job in 2011, reportedly after conflicts with then-Minister Eldar Mahmudov, but quickly resurfaced as a deputy chief of the body that investigates corruption.
In the Czech Republic, Ilham and Ilgar Nagiyev control a real estate and construction empire focused on building hotel resort and real estate development projects. Companies owned by the brothers and their business partners have invested heavily in the Czech capital of Prague and in the spa city of Marianske Lazne.
That city is currently under review by UNESCO for possible inclusion in the World Heritage List thanks to its unique and well-preserved architecture. The partners plan to invest €50 million ($59 million) to reconstruct the Hotel Palace Evropa under the brand Vichy Célestins.
This was the site of world-famous chess matches, including the legendary 1925 games featuring Frank Marshall and Aron Nimzowitsch.
The Nagiyevs bought an entire block of heritage buildings through AME Holding and plan to connect about 10 buildings to create a five-star hotel called the Vichy Célestins Spa Hotel in cooperation with a French company. The reconstruction will feature 104 rooms, three restaurants, underground parking, a cigar lounge and two cafes.
According to Miroslava Urbancova of the Marianske Lazne municipality, the project is still far from finished. Recently, AME Holding has once again asked to extend the completion deadline to June of 2019.
“They started with a big investment,” Urbancova said, explaining that Azerbaijan’s economy was then hit by a sharp drop in oil prices in 2014. “So they stopped the reconstruction work, and now are frequently requesting new deadlines to finish [it].”
The Nagiyev brothers have other hotel and real estate investments as well. Along with a group of prominent Azerbaijani businessmen, they have invested another $46 million in Prague and Marianske Lazne.
The other investors include Vusal Aslanov and Fuad Safarov, deputy directors of Azerbaijan Railways, and Malik Avaz Hasanov, a member of the Azerbaijani parliament and brother of Karam Hasanov, chief of its Privatization Committee.
The brothers’ business interests in the Czech Republic are handled by an Azerbaijani citizen named Eltay Dilbazi, who is executive director of all their companies, including AME. He declined to comment for this story.
Together with another Czech real estate company called Imperial Holding, Ilgar Nagiyev also owns a company called JGY Czech, which owns a building on Prague’s Seifertova Street.
The building is a busy few minutes’ walk from the University of Economics and the main railway station. On the ground level is a branch of the Costa coffee chain, while the rest of the building contains apartments for university students.
Imperial Holding also owns the former Rozkvet Palace (since turned into a hotel) in the heart of Marianske Lazne, in the center of the main square near the singing fountain and colonnade, both well-known attractions.
Several months after Imperial Holding bought the hotel, it burned down; the cause of the fire has never been determined. Afterwards, the company promised to build an exact replica of the palace, which was famous for its classicist architecture. But so far nothing has been done. The ruins remain swathed in white material, covering its empty windows and preventing the curious from entering.
Both AME Holding and Nettle Stone Investment show Ilgar Nagiyev’s address as the same Baku address where Ali Nagiyev is registered to vote.
Ilham Nagiyev was listed as a board member in Jankovcova 18, a property company, between 2013 and 2015. His brother Ilgar has been a board member since then. The company is worth 60 million CZK ($2.4 million).
Jankovcova 18 was founded by a group of Italian investors under the name Amore per Sempre (Love Forever). This real estate development project is based in Holešovice, a trendy part of Prague. The company bought the property originally intending to convert industrial space into a hotel and offices.
According to workers interviewed at the site, the plan has since shifted, with the developers now planning to build apartments, underground garages, and a restaurant. Ilgar Nagiyev is also a director of FQA Czech, another property company with offshore shareholders that has been based in the Czech Republic since March 2013. The company’s capital is over 9,5 million CZK ( $500,000).
Ilham Nagiyev was elected as deputy chairman of Azerbaijan’s Young Businessmen network in 2012.
Ilgar Nagiyev is also connected to a company in Baku called Romb LLC, which was incorporated in 2008. He is currently listed as the company’s director. The founder and director of the company at the time of incorporation was Orkhan Nagiyev, according to Azerbaijan business records that are no longer available. The information has been hidden since 2012, when the Azerbaijani Parliament passed a law making company ownership a commercial secret.
Orkhan Nagiyev’s exact relationship to the Nagiyev family is unclear, but he is linked to them in a number of business endeavors.
Orkhan Nagiyev is director and owner of at least four other companies incorporated at the same address: the ER & ER Group-A LLC; Etalon NM (incorporated on the same day with Romb LLC); Baku Aluminium Industry MMC; and the Life Style Spa and Wellness Salon.
Orkhan Nagiyev also manages other Baku organizations linked to the Nagiyev family.
A 17-story building in the Narimanov District of Baku sports a huge sign on top that reads “Life Center.” The building serves as a legal address for many Nagiyev family members and their companies.
These include companies that provided the state with internet traffic control, surveillance, and communications equipment when Ali Nagiyev was deputy minister of national security.
The same building is also used by businesses owned by Ali Nagiyev’s brother Vali Nagiyev, who in 2015 was appointed deputy chief of the State Migration Service but did not end his business activities as required by the State Service Law. His companies have multi-million-dollar investments in construction and leisure in Turkey, the Czech Republic and Azerbaijan.
Correction, June 10, 2020: In the original version of this story, OCCRP conflated two persons with the same name. The story has been edited to remove that information. OCCRP regrets the error.